Transcript

Israel Launches Offensive in Gaza

Israeli ground troops pushed into the Gaza Strip early Wednesday in a military operation aimed at freeing a captured soldier whose fate has transfixed much of the country.
Israeli ground troops pushed into the Gaza Strip early Wednesday in a military operation aimed at freeing a captured soldier whose fate has transfixed much of the country.

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Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 28, 2006; 12:00 PM

Israel has launched an offensive in Gaza in an attempt to recover a kidnapped an Israeli soldier. Israel began building up troops near the Gaza Strip Tuesday even as the Hamas government for the first time implicitly recognized Israel's right to exist.

Washington Post staff writer Scott Wilson , who is based in Jerusalem, was online Wednesday, June 28, at noon ET to discuss the latest on the military action and the kidnapped soldier.

Israeli Troops Move Into Gaza ,( June 28, 2006 )

Related links: Hamas and Fatah to Implicitly Recognize Israel , ( June 27, 2006 )

The transcript follows.

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Scott Wilson: Hi everyone. I've been touring the Gaza Strip today, talking to Palestinians and Israeli military officials by phone, trying to get a sense of how this confrontation over the 19-yeard-old captured Israeli soldier. Hope I'll be able to answer most of your questions. I'll get to them...

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Cambridge, Mass.: Hi: By what means does Israel believe that the incursion into Gaza will lead to the release of their kidnapped soldier? Do they believe that Hamas leaders are in some way behind the kidnapping and therefore can release the soldier at will? That Hamas has made contact with the kidnappers and can negotiate with them? Or do they expect Hamas to publicly demand his release and the kidnappers (whoever they may be) will comply? What's the thinking here?

Scott Wilson: Good question. The short answer is yes - Israeli believes Hamas is largely responsible for the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit and makes no distinction between its political leadership, now running the Palestinian Authority, and its military wing, which has claimed responsibility (along with two smaller armed groups) for the soldier's capture. So the military operation - on the ground and in the air - is a form pressure Israel hopes will shake loose the prisoner. It is not working so far.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: Is there any precedent for such an invasion force to release a POW? I can only think of the Iran hostage crisis in 1980.

Scott Wilson: Not that I can think of....Israel, of course, does not consider Gaza an independent state. It withdrew its settlements from Gaza last year, but has not challenged the legal distinction that it still remains the occupying power of the strip (it controls air space, the crossings between Israel and Gaza, etc).

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Charlottesville, Va.: Who are the women and children that the Palestinians want the Israelis to release? What are they accused of? How were they captured? How long are they being held? What legal representation and rights do they have? How can one begin to understand the situation without this unreported knowledge?

Scott Wilson: All good questions. This is "knowledge" that is very hard to come by and has been requested many times. Many are charged in security-related crimes, others are charged with far less serious ones. But Israel has not released any statistical detail of this population.

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Arlington, Va.: Because the agreement does not explicitly recognize Israel, and because it only limits "resistance" (terrorism to the rest of the world) to areas occupied since 1967, are the US and Europe likely to continue to deny funding to the Hamas government?

Scott Wilson: It is still hard to know, but the EU has said in a statement is considers the agreement reached yesterday a "positive step." The Israeli government, however, has said it would mean very little change in its approach to the Palestinian government (which, according to the agreement, is suppose to get a new national-unity government that will likely not be led by Hamas in the coming weeks. The argument you outline is the one Israel will be making to the US, EU and other donors to continue the funding freeze, most likely.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you believe that Palestinians would be justified in conducting military operations to free thousands of their political prisoners who were abducted by Israel and held without charge or trial?

Scott Wilson: What I believe doesn't matter. The point is that the Palestinians believe it.

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Rockville, Md.: Hi Scott, why are the Israelis being so open about this incursion into the Gaza Strip. It would stand to reason that this would only hurt their cause in finding their comrade as the Palestinians would have ample time to secure his hidden location or move him.

Scott Wilson: I think this is a very good point. Part of this Israeli incursion, so far anyway, is for show. Israeli fighters, for example, have been flying over Gaza since before dawn and causing sonic booms over the cities (alarming for a population jittery already.) The openness is an attempt to pressure the Palestinians holding the prisoner to release him. But if you look at the operation last night - focusing on getting a better look at the southern border with Israel and cutting north-south routes through the strip - it is an attempt to find the soldier by hopefully confining his kidnappers to one place. They may be less open about their intentions from here on out...

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Washington, D.C.: Kerem Shalom, the border crossing attacked by Hamas on the 25th, is the same crossing used to transfer humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. What do you think motivated Hamas to launch an attack on, of all places, the humanitarian crossing into Gaza?

Scott Wilson: It is one crossing used to transfer aid to the Palestinians. The other is Karni. All are closed at the moment...

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Millersburg, Pa.: Is the electricity and water cutoff in Gaza now?

Scott Wilson: About 65 percent of Gaza does not have power (myself included) but the water is still on in most places, as far as I know. (Those who rely on electricity to pump the water may not have it, of course.) Engineers today said it would take about three months to fix the power station hit last night.

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Washington, D.C.: Is a rift forming between the Gaza based leaders of Hamas and exiled leaders such as Khaled Mashal? Also, is Mashal a target for Israeli reprisals because of his involvement in ordering the kidnapping?

Scott Wilson: It's been forming for quite a while, since even before the January elections, but this prisoners' document and soldier issue has really exposed it. The split is fairly easy to understand: Hamas political leaders in Gaza have to deal with the burden of government, including economic sanctions, and the exiles do not have to compromise at all on their positions. Israelis believe Mashal may have ordered the Sunday attack that resulted in the soldier's capture in order to scuttle talks over the prisoners' document, which effectively commits Hamas for the first time to a two-state solution. And, yes, Mashal is a target. You may remember that Israeli agents tried to kill him in Amman, Jordan by poisoning him in the 1990s, but failed. They were made (by the Americans) to provide him an antidote and Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin was freed from prisoner as well in the fallout.

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New York, N.Y.: Doesn't the Palestinian agreement not completely renounce violence within the pre-1967 borders, too?

Scott Wilson: The intent of the document is to confine future operations against Israel to the occupied territories. But it's unclear whether the Hamas military wing - now holding the soldier against the wishes of some Hamas political leaders - will go along with that. And Islamic Jihad, which has carried out all suicide bombings over the past year, did not sign the agreement.

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Washington, D.C.: Thanks for your accurate and sensitive reporting over these weeks. Many people of faith here in DC -- Christians and Jews -- are deeply concerned that a secure and just, ongoing peace is secured within Israel for both the Palestinians and Israelis. What is the most effective way we in the U.S. can support this process, and insist that both sides are accountable for living up to agreements that they have signed and international, humanitarian agreements?

Scott Wilson: I would just suggest doing what you are likely doing already - staying engaged with the subject everyday, writing journalists and politicians when you have concerns, and trying your very best to see life through both sides of this conflict.

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Richmond, Va.: Why don't the various Palestinian entities pretending to govern just acknowledge Israel's existence and state: "We accept the two state solution (living side by side in peace)."

Scott Wilson: Fatah has. Hamas, for religious and political reasons, does not see any benefit in doing so - at least as explicitly as you set it out.

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New Hampshire: Scott -- do you feel trapped? I just saw Mustafa Barghouti on CNN international and he said the negotiations with the Palestinians was successful. How in the world do you think this will play out? Are you aware of any deaths thus far? Would the wounded be able to get to hospital and are the hospitals functioning?

Scott Wilson: No, I don't feel trapped, although Gaza is a small, crowded place and when fighting starts here (even on small scales) it can be frightening. I, of course, can leave - whether to get medical attention or if I feel the situation is too dangerous. Palestinians cannot - especially now that the crossings are closed - and so they often speak of living in "a big jail." The hospitals are working, though ill-equipped and understaffed. Israel has allowed some Palestinians wounded by its military actions to be treated in Israeli hospitals, though not on a large scale.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Why in reporting on Gaza or in other predominately Arab-occupied areas, does The Post play up the emotional factors -- weeping mothers -- yet, in the recent inner-page reporting on Qassam missile bombardments of Israel, I saw the theme being that the Israeli government isn't doing enough for the residents of the town of Sderot, rather than of the disruptions in the lives of its people, including sending their children out of town to avoid dangers? I think there should be a broader recognition of the role terror plays in the Arab war against Israel.

Scott Wilson: This is a frequent critique and I naturally would argue that I try my best to portray the emotional challenges on both sides of this conflict. I felt I did so in Sderot, using as one example a woman so frightened by a rocket alarm as she walked down the street one evening that she simply sat down and shrieked. But your concern over balance is something I think about and evaluate in my work regularly, and I will keep your thoughts in mind.

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Washington, D.C.: Why are Palestinian hospitals in Gaza "ill-equipped and understaffed?"

Scott Wilson: A lot of reasons, which I have written about in the past. Past official corruption and the present economic sanctions in place against the Palestinian government is the short answer...

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Alexandria, Va.: About your answer to question about invasion forces to free POW's. Wasn't an invasion force used in North Viet Nam to free POW's at the Hanoi Hilton.

Scott Wilson: Honestly, I just don't know...

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Washington, D.C.: With all of the security forces at their dispense, why was Hamas or even the PA unable to prevent the attack that PM Olmert had warned?

Scott Wilson: All the security forces at their disposal? Hamas has, at the most, 6,000 armed members (and perhaps half that number.) They have rifles, RPGs, homemade rockets that are wildly inaccurate (meaning that civilians are as likely to be hit by them as Israeli soldiers in any kind of attack), and mines. The Israeli military is one of the most potent in the world - with F-16s, Merkava tanks, armored-personnel carriers, state-of-the-art equipment for fighting at night, etc. The two forces are not even remotely equal...

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Potomac, Md.: Hi Scott, if and when Shalit is recovered, what do you think the implications will be? Will the situation end there, or do you think there will be fallout from the tense situation?

Scott Wilson: It's very hard to say. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says the operation ends once Cpl. Shalit is released safely. If Israel frees him on its own, it's unclear whether it would continue with a broad campaign against his captors or smaller strikes over time.

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Tampa, Fla.: Have you noticed any differences between U.S. and European reporting on this? Some Americans see the European press as not sufficiently pro-Israel, while some Europeans see the American press as too pro-Israel.

Scott Wilson: This is a big question without easy answers. Suffice it to say I don't think the media in Europe and the United States all fall into the same categories. There are shades of difference within the European and the American press.

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Scott Wilson: I have to run now, so forgive me for not getting to everyone's questions. Thanks much for participating and hope to do this again soon.

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